15 Calming and Reassuring Activities That Parents and Caregivers Can Do To Help Anxious and Worried Children

By Dr. Griffith
October 2001

1. Since anxiety is an emotion that drives children to worry about what is happening next, with older children, make your plans explicit for the next several weeks. This may involve placing a family calendar with dates and times of planned activities, written so that a child could easily determine what is happening.

2. Practice a relaxation exercise with your child. You and your child sit on a couch, chair or the floor so that you’re comfortable. Probably the simplest relaxation is sitting still, closing your eyes (this is optional), taking three deep breaths and then enjoying the relaxation that accompanies the breathing. You can coach the child through this verbally or by example. Most all children get the idea rather quickly.

3. A variation of the above sitting exercise, is a walking/relaxation method. Choose a path to walk that is not cluttered with traffic, people or noise. It is possible, however, do to this anywhere you can walk safely. Determine the starting and ending point of your walk. You may hold hands if you are moved to do so, but some people find it easier to relax without this. While walking, simplify you and your child’s focus by relaxing your breathing or humming/singing a simple tune together. Don’t worry about your musical ability!

4. A child’s imagination is a powerful tool for creating anxiety or, its opposite, relaxation. Anxious children are often more anxious without structure and one such setting that can be anxiety provoking is at bed time, when kids need to let go and enter the unknown world of sleep. If your child has sleep problems, have them go with you to buy a flashlight. For younger children, put their name on it and tell them they can shine it on the scary things they think they see in their room- and these ghosts are gone in a flash!

5. Coming and going are taken granted by most people and this includes children. Anxious children may have difficulty with leaving (separation) and going to new places (fear of unfamiliar places). Give your child a picture of yourself to carry from one place to another. For some children, a favorite toy or stuff animal can be helpful in making transitions.

6. With an older child, you can have him or her rate how nervous her or she feels on a scale of 1-10. You can draw this on a scale or use a household ruler. At one end, is relaxed and playful and at the other end is tense, nervous and serious. Have your child pick a number and then do one of the exercises at discusses here and have your child rate it again. Stroke them for any reduction at all, even half points!

7. Reward your child for finding activities that are relaxing and pleasurable. This is especially important if he or she finds these activities on her or his own. The reward may be as simple as telling your child that you noticed how much fun he or she is having. This strengthens your child’s tendency to maintain or find such activities in the future.

8. Many anxious children have anxious parents. Anxiety is contagious and children, particularly younger children, are suggestible. Allow your child to observe you mastering your anxiety through your own practice of relaxing activities such as hobbies or relaxing conversations.

9. When listening to events with your children-or when discussing events that are catastrophic or terrible, be sure to explain to children that these things are temporary and/or situational. Anxious children’s explanations of negative events tend to make them more anxious and offering them counter-explanations can be very helpful.

10. Ask you child about his her day, every day. Take time to listen carefully and not interrupt. Like above, when your child is telling you about his or her day, listen for explanations that are negative and use words such as always or never. For example, Shelly may say, “I never can talk right when I do my report in front of class. They must think I’m a dork or something.” The words never and must are clues to this child's negative explanations about her performance.

11. Drawing can be a relaxing activity, even for those not inclined to be artists. Find a quiet area that is free from distraction and bring water markers, pencil or crayons and some paper. You and your child can draw favorite places or make believe peaceful places. Have a conversation about what makes the place you and your child draw so special. Be sure do put the pictures in a place so they can be shared with others.

12. If your child is prone to panic or sudden and unusually high levels of anxiety, his or her breathing or respiration is typically increased. This can be slowed though an exercise used in Eastern meditation practices. While sitting in front of or beside the child, place your hand on his or her mid chest area. Next, count out loud, saying “one, now breathe, two now breathe, three now breath” and so on. Your hand simultaneously is reassuring and serving as a “pacemaker” and your voice is calming.

13. Develop an exercise program that includes you and your child. Exercise raises the body’s natural anti-stress chemicals to levels that can soothe and calm the mind. Bicycling, walking, jogging, tennis, swimming and weight training can be helpful.

14. Read the labels of soda and other soft drinks with your child. Older children can research this on their own, but it may help if the information flows from parent to child. Make an effort to learn the effects that sugar, caffeine, junk food and medication have on the mind. Read “Calm Energy” by Robert Thayer, Ph.D.

15. Exposing children to anxiety laden material, such as images of 9-11, may lead to an increase of anxiety, the kind of anxiety that is referred to as “free floating” meaning this type of apprehension is difficult to capture with words. I strongly urge you to watch this type of programming with your children, if you feel he or she must watch it and make yourself available to offer generous amounts of reassurance, if needed.

ArticleAustin Griffith